11 technologies to feed the world

food-securityIn an age of climate change and rising population, how are we going to feed everyone in 2050? It’s a question that is occupying some of the brightest minds in agricultural science, and hundreds of said minds have contributed to the latest book from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

The book, Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity, models various agricultural technologies across different regions of the world to identify the most promising interventions. The result is a list of 11 technologies that could raise yields by 67% by 2050.

I’ll warn you beforehand – there’s no urban skyscraper farms here, or terraforming the Sahara. These are technologies worthy of the Campaign for Boring Development, but all the more accessible for it. If it’s all too much, just skip to the video at the bottom.

Here’s the list:

  1. No-till agriculture uses minimal ploughing, as this disrupts the soil and leads to erosion and loss of fertility. Seeds are planted directly, and mulches and cover crops are used. There has been an explosion of no or low-till agriculture. Starting in Brazil and South America, it has spread and doubled in the last decade. A quarter of US farmers now use the technique, catching up to countries like Paraguay, where 90% of agriculture is no-till.
  2. Integrated soil fertility management – is all about caring for the soil, and then letting the soil care for the plants, by using crop residues, manure, and compost, to add organic matter to the soil.
  3. precision agriculture uses sensors in the fields, satellite imagery and GPS systems to monitor crops closely, intervening at the right moments with water or fertiliser. Most often used in the US and Germany.
  4. Organic agriculture relies entirely on biological processes to nurture soil and plants, and control pests and weeds. Yields are sometime lower in organic farming, depending on the crop, but they use less energy and inputs, are better for biodiversity and there is less risk of erosion and soil depletion.
  5. Nitrogen-use efficiency is the science of using nitrogen fertiliser well, by measuring the amount distributed and the amount used by plants, and minimising the difference.
  6. Water harvesting uses tillage techniques, plant residues and run-off control to keep water in the soil when it rains, and available to plants for longer. It is a centuries-old technique used in arid regions.
  7. Drip irrigation was developed in Israel and consists of delivering water and nutrients directly to the roots of plants through networks of pipes or hoses. No water is wasted, making this a useful technology in situations of water scarcity.
  8. Sprinkler irrigation delivers water to crops to schedule, at the times of day when plants are most able to absorb it and less of it is likely to evaporate.
  9. Drought tolerant varieties are strains that will survive periods of drought and still deliver a yield. There are various characteristics that might make a plant hardier, like larger root architecture and ability to draw water, or maize plants with thicker leaves so that the seed doesn’t wither and shrink.
  10. Heat-tolerant varieties are slightly different and still in its infancy, with plant breeders and biotech scientists working on plants able to withstand extreme temperatures.
  11. Crop protection is about preventing pests, which are still responsible for a quarter of crop losses. There’s a real science here involving older techniques around when to plant to avoid insect swarming seasons, intercropping, and crop rotation, as well as newer techniques such as pest-resistant varieties and pesticides.

What I like about this approach is that there are no techno-fixes here, but no opposition to technology either. We need drought resistant varieties – if they come through genetic engineering, genetic markers or conventional breeding, so be it. Likewise with synthetic inputs. Where they can be used wisely and sustainably, we can’t rule them out on idealistic grounds. Whatever works, delivering yields without exhausting soil, water, or fossil fuels. Ancient customs sit alongside the latest digital tech. We’re going to need a bit of everything.

“The reality is that no single agricultural technology or farming practice will provide sufficient food for the world in 2050,” as lead author Mark Rosegrant says. “Instead we must advocate for and utilize a range of these technologies in order to maximize yields.”

8 Comments on “11 technologies to feed the world”

  1. justnickoli March 14, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    What is exciting though, is that these are all much more achievable than terraforming the Sahara or urban skyscraper farms (cool as they look) and can mostly be implemented by individual, small farms.
    Boring development looks interesting as well.

    • Jeremy March 14, 2014 at 9:54 am #

      Exactly, which is why I’ve written about this instead of the Sahara Forest Project. I love a space age fantasy solution as much as the next man, but it’s the everyday, ordinary technologies that make the biggest difference.

      • m. 'A minor matter' March 23, 2014 at 9:04 am #

        The biggest difference? not human behavior, but human ‘tout court’, and that consideration is a taboo. It is hidden in plain sight: capitalism as in our global economic methods differing less then being more of the same, needs bigger populations, it is the most evident nomer of ‘growth’. Capitalism as a whole is a Ponzi scheme, thus to administer relative(elites-bulk humanity)riches, a submissive, growing world population is needed. Behavioral changes are percentile, population reductions are exponential in the effect any behavioral changes can have, as they are reduced exponentially by growing bulk humanity. Facultas, our elites, know this, emotionally expect, to further(no rationality there) the distance between them and they, human bulk is going to implode by circumstance. Their short-term consideration is no more then while it lasts, secure their own. Since this sounds not too smart, the question of individual human potential, socially organised potential is raised. Is humanity in a distrophy between what we can accomplish, and what steers our toil, definitely.

  2. m. March 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    Some degrees down short on the scale of overheating? This is green capitalism at it’s best. All context is missing. A larger body of knowledge would debunk these arguments in minutes rationally. Secondly the real intentions of the looping problems-solutions wheel is financial gain, monopolizing.

    • Jeremy March 14, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

      Increasing yields means increasing gain, yes, but it also means feeding people in a crowded world. Not sure what our alternatives are really.

      • m. 'A minor matter' March 22, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

        Is it the acknowledgement of lack of solution that obliges inhibition of creative systemic theory and daring change? Does not knowing what to do paralises any think process out of the box?

        No change in behavior, on average, planetwide, will be more then a percentage of stopping nocive derivatives. Every person less as stands is exponential to that. So timeliness and the laws of efficiency in problem solving point us to breaking the taboo of seeing population regulation as fashist.

        To solve problems of disruption timely, the world population must go down, from up to 10 billion to say any number that sustains quality of life for the then world population. The exact number is subject to our human quality of desire, the world we see as fit and human being of any meaning inside this larger context of life. It is evenly subject to necessity, the numbers, human bulk will be crushed by nature, as a side consequence anyhow, this then is not a designer solution, but disruption, mostly disfavorable as compared to intentional policies.

        So there is the luxury of choice and the obligation by necessity, opportunistic mongering and rational, long-term policies revolving. The moment in history of the species to impose on it’s real role in biodiversity and larger context. The crux, the breaking point, what is it going to take to harness science, philosophy, politics, human nature, social organising into think-do of timely, global, and long-term synchronous logic of survival. Say choosing not submitting to 350.000 more possible years of species life-line.

        Read more: m.openairproperties.com

  3. Nira March 22, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Are you familiar with the work of Allen Savory? For reversing desertification and increasing food productivity in marginal areas his methodology is extraordinary.

    • m. 'A minor matter' March 23, 2014 at 8:45 am #

      Allen Savory is probably on to something, whether it is relevant to timely global problem solving core measures, not really. Should he go on, persuing the incrementals, definitely.

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